How much choice do humans want in their life? Between 3 and 19, if you read into the research by Choice guru Sheena Iyengaar. Her TED talk on choice is the most accessible way in, and her research papers are on Google Scholar. My new friend David Bill took me to the bourbon bar pictured above, in the French quarter of San Francisco and, indeed, the choice was so overwhelming I went for the drink I rarely do these days: a draught beer. When faced with overwhelming choice, we can get unimaginative.
So here's my question: do you offer at least three choices to students in every piece of thinking, learning or 'work' that they do? Most of the time when I ask this, the answer is a resounding "hmmm". Followed by a quiet 'no'.
We've been playing with the notion of Generative Student-Led Topics to get over the lack of real choice evident in so much enquiry- or project-based learning. Basically, we're exploring how teachers really design choice into learning, without inadvertently removing it. There's a brief summary of how we're doing that on the fabby NoTosh Lab pages.
Learning in school is one thing. Heading to university another. Rarely does either truly reflect the incredible pace of change in the world beyond those thirteen years of formal education, where the demands for more complex collaboration and ingenuity test even the best education systems' agility to the limit.
Take the world of fashion, for example. One of our clients, a luxury fashion brand for whom we develop and deliver education programmes in the communities in which it operates, has grown nearly ten times in as many years. Digital teams now operate on a par with merchandising and finance, and clothing designers themselves are acutely aware from their very first sketch how their product will look in a digital store as much as on the runway.
The people in these teams would be unlikely to have ever met had they attended the same school. Slightly geeky computer programmers would hardly be seen creating amazing projects with the fashionistas, the mathematics and science majors wouldn't be seen spending time in home economics thinking about how they could imbue cloth with data-processing technology that will heat the fabric when it's cold outside, and cool it down when summer arrives.
And in university, these serendipitous, tangential collaborations are made even more unlikely to succeed in anywhere other than extracurricular clubs, as students specialise ever deeper, narrower.
Yet, in the world outside formal education, serendipity is increasingly what makes the creative, financial, scientific and engineering worlds go around. Tangents, not five year plans, are where the biggest discoveries and creations of the past decade have come from, whether it's developing social networks with billions of users, finding preventative medicine in foods that can help more of us avoid cancer by eating certain foods regularly and cooking them correctly, or developing construction technologies that enable apartment blocks 17 stories high to be constructed in one week in China's expansive metropolises.
Chefs work with PhDs, construction trades work in ways that run against what their forefathers would have said was "right", and individuals in dorms can reach out and find the right team to get the rest done just as well.
Schools have an opportunity to prepare their young people with the robustness and acuity that is required to survive and thrive in this fast-paced, anything-is-possible world. It involves schools spending time like they've never spent it before understanding what constitutes collaboration, real collaboration and not just 'group work'.
It means the construction of new spaces, and the overhauling of existing ones. Rows of chairs and the same group of students sitting with each other all year long is not preparation for collaboration 'out there'. Students of the same ability working with each other doesn't chime with the notion that, in true collaboration, you reach out to those smarter than you to fill your gaps in understanding - we need more cross-age coaching, joint projects, younger students bringing their different perspective on the world to older students who might have lost it on the way.
And these aren't just great for collaboration. Education research is mounting that it is the skill set for collaboration in the real world that also brings the most to learners' progress in school.
Now, go and discuss this. In a team. Collaborate on something to rock the status quo of group work and encourage young people to truly collaborate.
My Flemish pal Kris Hoet has been at it again with his collaborators at Duval Guillaume, producing this incredible clip about a team of music lovers, musicians and DJs who, despite having physical challenges, are able to create music manipulating a programme with only their brainwaves. The goal of Smirnoff, the advertiser? To show that there is the power to create in every one of us.
As a teenager I loved playing Bach on the piano, an instrument that for most of my playing time I was maybe less than loving about. It was all about first of all learning the rudiments, then adding in what you felt about it, then bringing the parts together into a whole that always felt greater than the sum of those elements I'd practiced in bar-by-bar, note-by-note detail. Today, I still play music - percussion - and it's the same process, I guess, that I describe in Bach: learn the rudiments well, pull them together bit by bit, then unleash the whole to see what it sounds like together with the band.
British Philosopher Alan Watts sums up an attitude that took me years to understand, and which underlines the attitude to life that all my colleagues sign up to. If you want to do something - defend the charged, taxi people through cities, teach children, grow wine, whatever... - then do it.
I'm working at the moment with a group of teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs in Finland, all of whom are passionate about what they do. They'd do it, I'm sure, were money no object. And because they love it, they practice it, they get good at, and so people pay them to do it so well.
Yet I've met educators on my journey who wouldn't do it, were money no object. They should go and find something else they really want to do, and not perpetuate the model in front of our children. Life is already too short to be doing something you don't want to.
The full transcription of Alan Watts' If Money Were No Object:
What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like?
Let’s suppose, I do this often in vocational guidance of students, they come to me and say, well, we’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do.
So I always ask the question, what would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?
Well, it’s so amazing, as a result of our kind of educational system crowds of students say, well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way. Or another person says well, I’d like to live an out-of-doors life and ride horses.
I say, you want to teach in a riding school? Let’s go through with it. What do you want to do?
When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, you do that — and forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time.
You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.
And after all, if you do really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually turn it – you could eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is.
So don’t worry too much that everybody is – somebody is interested in everything, anything you can be interested in, you will find others will.
But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track.
See what we are doing is we’re bringing up children and educating to live the same sort of lifes we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing, so it’s all retch and no vomit — it never gets there.
And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: what do I desire?
One of the schools my firm NoTosh is lucky enough to work with every week is Rosendale Primary School, in south London, UK. Its teachers, its students and its leadership team are a treat for Tom, who spends every week with them, and for Peter and me when we're lucky enough to come in as reinforcements. For nearly two years, we've worked alongside teachers and leaders there to develop thinking and strategy, as well as some damned good practice, around formative assessment, 70% negotiated timetables and design thinking in the curriculum, which now permeates their work from Reception through to the final year of school. Neil Hopkin and Kate Atkins, the Executive Head and Depute Head respectively, with their staff have developed a truly Tots to Teens strategy for their students. And they talk about it all the time on their own learning log.
To share with parents and the wider world how they do what they do and why they do it, Neil and Kate have authored a great online and paper edition book, outling How We Learn What We Learn. It's a gem, and a year-by-year manual on how to inspire creativity and excellence in learning.
Just released on YouTube is a new campaign from Belgian agency Duval Guillaume, where they changed the operation of schools for a day. Boys went to school to learn. Girls went to school to clean out the toilets and undertake other menial tasks.
It feels to me like a modern-day, marketers version of the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes experiment from Jane Elliot in the early 1970s. She undertook an experiment in arbitrary discrimination between "underclass" brown eyed people and the upper class blue eyed people. She did it against the fallout of Martin Luther King's assassination. We need something fresh like this today to make sure that we don't tolerate the tolerated, that all girls get to school, wherever they are in the world. Our fallout is last week's shooting of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, shot because she believes girls should go to school.
Next week I'll be in Antwerp to hang out with Kris Hoet, the Director of Digital at the agency who came up with the idea. I wonder what questions educators might have about how we might harness the power of digital and the savvyness of great marketers to improve learning outcomes for more children?
This week I've been working with senior education folk in Brisbane to show, through a set of stories and discussions, how their own creative confidence is so important to bring about a sense of self-efficacy in their teachers and students. Self-efficacy is that feeling that whatever you do can have an impact on the world around you. Creative confidence is not feeling uncomfortable when people start to approach things in ways that rock the status quo.
Self efficacy is pretty much at the core of motivation to learn, the motivation to do anything! After all, we don't tend to undertake tasks that we feel we'll never manage to complete or get good at: learning Arabic, cooking a soufflé... Students in school can have self-efficacy and see how to complete the "game" of doing well at school, while others assume they'll never score highly in that game and just disengage. Some have self-efficacy in spades, and others have little.
The talk above from IDEO and d.school founder David Kelley contains a powerful trio of stories about how self-efficacy has moved on from its origins with Albert Bandura in seeing how phobics can overcome their phobias, to a set of understandings about how humans measure their progress towards goals and decide on their next steps based on those measurements, sentiments and reactions.
Kelley's bias is on creative confidence and turning the tide on the number of people who, from the moment they're institutionalised in school through to adulthood, decide to tell people "I'm not creative". His belief is that, in the same way snake phobics can be trained to get themselves out of that phobia, creative-phobics can be trained to get themselves out of that hole, too. It all starts with a basic set of assumptions and processes like design thinking that turn that scary creative journey into a familiar well-trodden path:
Much in the same way the snake phobic can see other people are not phobic, and must have found the means within themselves to be that way, we can realise that people we see as creative found a set of processes, steps and attitudes that allow them to think in that way.
So counter-intuitive is this point, that we normally end up referring to research that shows how much we can learn without being taught. Sugata Mitra's hole in the wall experiments in India are indicative of what can be achieved when children with no or little education, and no English, are given lots of content and time to grapple with it together. Within months, by coaching each other and playing, they become fluent not just in a new language, but also in the science or maths concepts they've been playing with:
Likewise, there's some compelling research showing how much more learning takes place when students work collectively in a team, coaching each other to create a team-based product of learning with individual accountability built in. The effect of cross-age or cross-ability coaching is equivalent to every student, not just the one "being coached", having one-on-one teacher coaching. There is double the amount of learning, in fact, than when the teacher is leading learning from the front (evidence from Dylan Wiliam's Embedded Formative Assessment, page/reference unknown at present time).
And there are also personal stories; not highbrow, large scale research, but it makes the point powerfully, too: we don't need to have teachers teach for learners to learn:
Last year, while sitting with Sugata in a pre-keynote speakers' room, I showed him a video I had shot in the car a few months previously. It is my daughter Catriona, sitting in her seat, singing along to the Beatles. The interesting thing is that she knows all the words to the song, verbatim, having never been taught them. Not only that, but having not had a CD player in the house since she was born, and having only just got a CD player in the new car, she had never heard this music before, either. Except for the nine months she was in the womb, when we did have a CD player in the house.
If you were to look at your school year ahead, and choose only ten things to teach, what would your top ten lecturettes be?
I'm paraphrasing somewhat, but this is a fascinating interview from jazz musician and management professor Frank Barrett, on a key design thinking skill, where problem solving alone is not sufficient.
A certain creative mindset with a distinct process that a team can use to hit its groove and make new discoveries is at the core of jazz, and it's at the core to the way of thinking that we've been working hard on with design thinking in schools. Likewise, the jazz musicians' practice of dislodging their routines in order not to fall into clichés is core to the design thinking process: the process of 'playing' remains the same, but the mindset we learn helps us see the same things we've seen before in a new light, time and time again:
"Improvisational mindset means that you have to leap in and take action, to say "yes". "Yes" is a mindset of affirmative confidence. You can't stop and problem solve. Problem solving is just not sufficient. If you're just in a problem-solving mindset your imagination is going to be shrunk. Comedy improvisors have an obligation to build on someone else's gag with "yes, and…". The same is true in jazz. You don't stop and analyse, criticise what you've heard. You jump on it and build."
As a jazz drummer through most of my youth (and still, on headphones and my Roland, in my office ;-) this podcast reminds me of all the leadership and team thinking lessons that I learned back then: comping to make the soloist sound great, that sense of "ubuntu", where I can't sound good unless my buddy sounds good, that constant listening to others in order to build on what they started...
Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.
His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.
Do you worry that your school or district could better harness its people, digital technology or physical space? Do you want some actionable inspiration, a mentor for a learning journey with your staff?
In a keynote or masterclass we can give them concrete ideas based on experience, enthusiasm fired by a vision of what can be, and backup before and after to make it happen for them.